By Charmayne James with Bonnie Wheatley
I’m a believer that you gain mental toughness as a competitor from the skills you develop on the way to becoming a more skilled horseman. Preparation is key to having an edge, and even when things don’t go 100 percent as planned, you are able to adapt if you’re prepared.
People ask me all the time how I cope with adrenaline and nerves, especially when I was young and running barrels full-time for a living. I think the ability to handle pressure goes back to the confidence you have in your horse. You have to have that bond and that trust in each other. All great barrel racing teams have that. Invest time in building a strong bond with your horse, so you know you can count on him, and he knows he can count on you when the going gets tough.
1. Cool is the Rule
Things are going to happen in the competition environment that are outside our control, so keeping a cool head is key. At the professional level, I became conditioned to sometimes arriving late to a rodeo because of breakdowns or poor road conditions. You’ve got to be ready to deal with those things and give yourself plenty of time, but stay calm because those things are going to happen. You’ve got to get through it and still put forth your best effort. I learned to keep my head about me and to focus on the job at hand. No matter what, you have to keep your cool. When you lose your composure, your horses feel that.
2. Establish a Routine
It was always important for me to set a routine and to focus on things within my control, because so much in rodeo is beyond our control. Having a routine helps your horse stay confident, too.
The number one thing is a well-prepared horse. If you’ve done your homework and taken care of business at home before you ever arrive to the event, you’re already a step ahead. Make sure your horse looks and feels his best and is fit, sound and ready to perform to the best of his ability. You don’t want to enter a green horse at a major event and have unfair expectations, either. You want to ease a horse into those high stress environments so they’re comfortable and gain seasoning gradually.
Make organized travel plans and learn about the facilities and surroundings before you head out. Ideally, allow yourself ample time so you can get settled in at rodeos and races. I’ve noticed that many times things go better on the second day of a barrel race after a horse has had time to adjust to the surroundings and is more at ease.
Once you’ve got the routines down that work for you, it’s not a good idea to deviate according to what you see others doing. Maybe it works best for you and your horse to trot little circles before you run, but you see someone else counter-arcing their horse a lot. Just because it works for them, doesn’t mean that’s what you have to try at a race. Trial and error is best experimented with at home first, then take that to the next event if it’s something that really helps. Routine is soothing to horses so the last thing you want to do is agitate them prior to your run.
From Scamper to Cruiser, most of my horses had a warm-up routine that was unique to that individual. You have to learn to customize things to fit each horse. One horse might need a little more warm-up time than another. I might use more slow work and flexing and bending with a slightly more nervous horse until he can let down and get comfortable. It’s always more challenging with multiple horses to prepare, especially if you’re alone.
Cruiser was prone to getting a little hot, so I lunged him before riding him, which got his muscles warmed up and kept him calmer. I often hand-walked right up until it was time to run. Scamper needed a different warm-up. If I sat around too much, he would get a little dull, so I had to keep him moving, keeping him on his toes a bit more.
3. Concentrate On Your Job
Once you get to a race, it’s tempting to want to socialize. I’m not saying that you can’t be friendly or have fun, but remember to take care of business, too.
In the early stages of my career, my mother would get irritated with me because I was just 14, I wanted to mingle with my friends. It’s natural to want to see your friends, but she instilled in me the need to focus my thoughts and actions on my job. Barrel racing is a big investment and I know my parents sacrificed a lot to allow me to run barrels. I know I did better because I learned to take competition seriously. It was very important that I was able to pay my own way, and I knew it.
The kind of training and determination it takes to succeed in barrel racing is the same with any sport. When you watch the Olympics, for instance it’s apparent that the athletes are trained to block external things out and focus solely on their race or their game. I think any top athlete who excels is capable of that type of concentration, barrel racers included.
4. Roll On
No matter who you are, or how much success you’ve had, you will encounter disappointment. Sometimes that day comes when yo switch from a seasoned, winning mount to a less experienced horse. After you’ve had success and then don’t win for a while, it can be disheartening. you have to ride the roller coaster of emotions through those times and do your best to learn from the experience. Work on improving all the time and constantly strive to be better.
If you learn nothing else, you should always aim to improve your horsemanship. A stronger skill set will up your game. It takes a long time and years of experience to make perfect patterns, but if you stay committed, you’ll learn the right skills and have the solid foundation you need as a rider in order to excel.